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  • Writer's pictureMandy McHugh

My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell: A Review


I've been seeing people talk about this book on Twitter for a while now, and my Libby hold finally released, so I was able to read it for myself.

Vanessa begs her parents to go to a private boarding school when she's 15. They agree when she receives a scholarship, but she struggles to balance her work load and doesn't make many friends. When her advisor tells her to up her extracurriculars because her college resume is looking thin, she joins the creative writing club and falls under the tutelage of her English teacher, Jake Strane. From there, we get an alternating timeline, past and present, as we witness the ramifications of her relationship with her teacher and the impact of another student's accusations against him.


This was a difficult book to read. Don't get me wrong: it's an amazing read an utterly engrossing, un-put-downable read, but incredibly hard to stomach.

Until I read this book, I didn't realize how normalized we are to the older man/younger woman paradigm in literature. I watched every crazy episode of Pretty Little Liars and not once batted an eyelash about Ezra's relationship with Aria, fully knowing she was an underage student, pursuing his feelings for her--it is so romanticized, this seduction, that the normalization is concerning. My Dark Vanessa is the opposite of this dramatic romanticism. Yes, Vanessa admits that her emotions for Jake are conflicted. She details how she followed him to his home in the early days, fantasized about him loving her, but never once are you actually rooting for them to be together. Russell exposes this for what it really is, juxtaposed with the Me Too movement and discourse on sexual assault.

Strane grooms Vanessa from the beginning, manipulating her in every way, convincing her that their interactions were her idea. Everything he does is calculated, plotted, and manipulated, and reading every instance of him taking advantage of her age, naivete, desire to prove her independence at a vulnerable time in her life--it was absolutely gut-wrenching. Russell expertly tackles the sensitive and complex feelings Vanessa is dealing with, and I think her reaction is so, so, SO important here. On the one hand, she understands what he did was wrong. On the other, she's convinced herself that she was to blame, too--that she should shoulder responsibility for their relationship because 1) she was aroused 2) she never explicitly said no 3) she demanded it was okay when he reverse psychologied/manipulated her into thinking it was her idea.

The way she unravels the impact he's had on her life in light of allegations from multiple students is a study in sexual assault, and I found this to be one of the most compelling aspects of Vanessa's character. She wants desperately to believe she's okay, that was mature enough to handle the choices she made when she was younger, but at the same time, the guilt and confusion tears her apart.

I've never read anything like this, and it deserves all the attention and positive reviews. My Dark Vanessa touches on sensitive issues and can be triggering; it certainly hit me on a visceral level. I've been thinking about my review, how I would describe the emotional impact this made, and in the end, I don't think words can do it justice.

11/10 one of the best, hardest-hitting, and powerful reads of the year.


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